How To Do Life

Fresh ideas about career and personal issues

How to Use an Expert

How can you make a wise decision when even expert opinion is often wrong?

Award-winning research finds that political pundits' predictions are little more accurate than a chimpanzee throwing darts.

Yet our thirst for guidance causes the media to bombard us with an unending parade of experts’ predictions, and not just on politics.

For example, financial TV shows routinely feature an expert who is convinced that the stock market will rise followed by an expert equally convinced it will fall. In fact, 60 to 90 percent of the time, investors do better in an unmanaged index fund such as Vanguard's than in a fund managed by experts.

And experts aren't much better in the here and now.

Edgar Fiedler, former Assistant U.S. Secretary of the Treasury said, “Ask five economists, you’ll get five answers, six if one went to Harvard.” 

Medical professionals cause 440,000 unnecessary deaths a year! And in the confidentiality of my career counseling office, more than one physician has said things to me like, “I hate having to do so much guesswork—How confident am I that my patient is healthy, needs or doesn’t need some test? Not confident enough.” We view highly educated physicians as experts. I know they're doing the best they can but I wish they were more often right.

And even when the medical establishment gets it right, their boasting can be overstated. For example, Genentech/Roche is one of the world’s most respected biotech/pharma companies, employing some of the world’s most expert researchers. Its blockbuster drug Herceptin yields $6 billion in sales every year with a cost per patient of $54,000 a year. For a long time, Genentech's website touted Herceptin as its poster-child drug. Yet, in fact, Herceptin extends lifespan just a few months and the quality of those few months may not even be worth living because of the drug's side effects plus those of adjuvant chemotherapy, radiation and therapy.

Yes, doctors can fix bones, cure many infections, and be excellent technicians. They can, for example, replace an amputated arm with a remarkably capable robotic one. But to, overall, call most physicians "experts," is a stretch.

Let’s look even at this website's focus: psychologists. Some psychologist experts assert that long-term psychodynamic therapy is best. Yet many other experts insist cognitive-behavioral therapy is superior.

Another example: Some psychologists believe that TV and video games are children’s anti-Christs. Other experts, including Harvard researchers, insist TV and video games are benign, that kids who will be violent aren’t made moreso even from the notorious Grand Theft Auto. Other experts go even further, claiming that TV and video games are a net good, especially for children of disadvantaged  backgrounds, a way to expand vocabulary, thinking skills, and experiences. (See this battle of the experts.)

So, in making decisions, are we left to flip coins? Consult Ouija boards? Of course not. Our best shot at a wise decision is generally to:

1. View an expert’s opinion as merely one worthy data point. 

2. Especially if it’s an important decision, get a second opinion, perhaps by crowd-sourcing. For example, you might use a Google search to identify a few articles written by experts.

3. Synthesize the information you get from experts, using your common sense and incorporating your values and gut feeling.

Do that and your decisions may usually be more expert than an expert’s.

Despite an expert-appearing bio on Wikipedia, Marty Nemko sometimes doesn’t feel so expert. But if you want to take his ideas as one data point in your explorations, look at his other articles or the large archive of Marty Nemko's work on Of his seven books, the most relevant to this blog’s readers is How to Do Life: What They Didn’t Teach You in School.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 

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